Saturday, April 12, 2014

Covert Action

Between the release of Goldfinger in 1964 to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, the James Bond films inspired hundreds upon hundreds of spirited, colorful, often nonsensical European spy films about smarmy super-agents trotting the globe to foil the dreams of assorted madmen megalomaniacs. These films took the Bond template and ran with it, and thanks to the inexpensive access to glamorous locations that Europe offers, even the films that couldn’t afford a proper office set could still afford to pop down to the Amalfi Coast or Monte Carlo or Paris for a couple days of filming. By the end of the 1960s, however, even though the Bond franchise was still going strong, the Eurospy films inspired by 007 all but vanished from screens, much in the same way as the sword and sandal films of the early 1960s.

It was no mystery where they went. Part of it was simply a case of over-saturation, the gluttonous overkill European cult cinema (usually led by the Italians) always bring to the table when a genre becomes popular. But even more so, the social and political climate of the 1960s rendered these frothy, goofball spy fantasies not just anachronistic, but even insulting to a generation that was now in the midst of civil unrest, warfare, and terrorism. When Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof are running through the streets, it’s hard to work up much interest in some smirking spy in a sharkskin suit chasing after a dude who invented a spore gun. In 1972, against the backdrop of Black September terrorists massacring Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich, the breezy fun of the Eurospy era gave way to the grim, nihilistic vision of the poliziotteschi film.

Still, much of the crime in Europe was politically motivated -- or at least so the criminals claimed -- and although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had relaxed a little, there was still a Cold War on. The spy films of the 1970s were a very different beast than those spy fantasies of the previous decade (even though that previous decade had seen the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis). More paranoid, more realistic, reflective of a world in which authority figures were no longer trusted or given the benefit of the doubt. Given the cross-over potential, it’s surprising how few times poliziotteschi and espionage met. Covert Action (Sono stato un agente C.I.A.) is one of the higher profile examples, if not one of the better ones, because it stars Maurizio Merli, the poster boy of the entire poliziotteschi genre.

American David Janssen (The Green Berets, O’Hara: U.S. Treasury) stars as retired CIA man Lester Horton, who spends his disgruntled retirement as a failed fiction writer and occasional author of scandalous tell-alls about the CIA (the character was allegedly based on real life CIA dirty laundry airer Philip Agee, who even sued the production company). When he pops up in Greece, for vacation he says, the CIA gets nervous, and before too long Horton is caught up in a convoluted plot revolving around murder and a taped confession that would be particularly damaging to the CIA.

Despite coming from two action-packed genres, and having “action” in its title, Covert Action isn’t an action film. It’s more of a brooding espionage thriller, paced slowly but not boring. Director Romolo Guerrieri was fairly low-key in the world of Eurocrime, compared to the big names like Lenzi, Massi, and Castellari, but he directed a few really good crime films in the 1970s (The Police Serve the Citizens?, City Under Siege, and Young, Violent, Dangerous), and Covert Action is similarly low-key. It’s about the paranoia and hopelessness one faces when trying to get out from under an organization that basically has carte blanche to do anything, anywhere in the world. When the action does heat up, it’s pretty damn good, including a good car chase, a harrowing interrogation scene, and a fight between co-star Maurizio Merli and a gang of hired killers. Merli co-stars as Lester’s friend, a man who is finding himself pushed out of the CIA and targeted for permanent retirement. Merli brings the intensity for which he’s known from cop movies, but this a more complex and vulnerable role than what’s he’s known for.

Covert Action isn’t essential viewing except for Maurizio Merli completists, and unless you’re predisposed toward appreciated slow burn spy films and character studies, it might try the patience a little. But if a measured pace doesn’t stick in your craw, then Covert Action is a deceptively intense thriller with some great performances, a few good stunt sequences, and a relentlessly bleak and exhausted mood. If you enjoy films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Three Days of the Condor, Covert Action will slide in nicely as a lesser but still plenty enjoyable example of the genre.

MVT: Although I’d love to give it to Merli for getting to do something other than grimace and box ears, it has to go to David Janssen. “Understated” is sometimes used when people don’t want to say “dull,” but it truly applies here. Despite maintaining his cool as best he can, Janssen’s performance bristles with a mix of intensity, frustration, and weariness. If James Bond was the spy who made people want to go out and have adventures, Janssen’s Lester Horton is the one that makes you want go home, collapse on the couch, and stare pensively at a tumbler of J&B.

Make or Break: Merli slaps some fools in a Greek amphitheatre. We all love watching Merli smack around criminals in his many cop films, but when he finally gets to bust out the backhand in Covert Action, it’s an entirely different sort of experience. Instead of the aggressor, he is the defender, and there is a savage desperation and sense of “the good man’s final stand” doom that lends the scene a melancholy air.

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